This Columbus Day, I am extra sensitive about the framing of history. As we all know, Christopher Columbus did not “discover” the Americas nor was he the first European to visit the Western Hemisphere. There were
millions of people living freely on the land that he stumbled upon in 1492.
With that in mind, and as someone who lives in Eckington, a largely black neighborhood that is now being “discovered” both by whites and wealthier people of color, I think often about how colonizers rewrote the history of the Americas to justify their treatment and attitude toward the indigenous people living there.
Not long ago, a newcomer to the neighborhood complained to me about how slow the community was progressing. There weren’t enough food places, bars and places to hang out at night in walking distance yet, he said. He complained about some of our other neighbors for their perceived circumstances and socio-economic status. Perhaps to his surprise and his dismay, I didn’t share his same feelings about the progress of the community and the folks down the street. I grew up in a neighborhood in Ohio, not that different from where I live now. I have a connection to the community and those that live here.
What we in urban cities on the cusp of change and “revitalization” must examine is how we define progress. The DC Neighborhoods Profile issued by the Washington, DC Economic Partnership this past February found that from 2010 to 2011, “DC’s population grew at a faster rate (2.7%) than any other U.S. state and over the past four years DC’s residential base has increased by more than 43,590 people. Fueling this population growth has been young professionals who are attracted to DC’s revitalized neighborhoods.”
If newcomers, are serious about becoming a part of neighborhoods that have existed for generations, they cannot go in with the assumption that the community they’ve moved to needs to adjust to their thinking, values and customs.
To assume that everyone in the community to which you’ve moved has the same priorities for neighborhood amenities is to assume that your neighbors’ basic challenges of quality of life have been met and that conveniences are the priority, when many times they are not. Residents and newly minted activists speak ad nauseam about the importance of streetscapes and making sure development projects are in the pipeline. I rarely hear those voices fight to make sure that the people who have lived in those neighborhoods get a fair chance at being employed on those projects.
Indeed, I see people moving in my neighborhood into homes and apartments that the previous occupants had to leave because they simply weren’t able to afford the higher rent, property taxes and cost of living. Previous occupants grew up in our neighborhood, graduated from nearby schools, attended churches blocks from their home and certainly had created memories, traditions and a culture. Yet when they are displaced, they take a piece of the history and a part of the culture that made the neighborhood with them. I wonder how they will be remembered, if at all, and what story we, as newcomers, will tell about them. Will they, like many of the indigenous people and cultures of the Americas, be wiped clean of our cultural memory of the District and other cities experiencing a renaissance?
This doesn’t have to happen, and with thoughtful approaches to city planning, and residents no longer being afraid to have tough conversations, it won’t. On a policy level, it takes accountability for leaders to ensure affordable housing, encourage mixed income communities and focus on job creation for all. Further, it means a commitment to social services, which is the crux of answering the question of how certain neighborhoods became “blighted” in the first place. As a society we have to ask, do we throw things away because they are broken or because we don’t want to or know how to fix them, or think they are too challenging to fix? On the surface it may seem easier to come into what has become an “undesirable” neighborhood and move what people and things are there out of the area and start from scratch, but when you pull back the surface layer, has the problem been solved? No. It has simply been moved.
In addition to the need to reexamine policies, people must reexamine themselves. Policy cannot change attitudes or daily interactions between someone who represents the “old” neighborhood and someone who represents the “new.” All persons should start with something as simple as a hello and then move to an honest discussion about what their fears are. We can’t be afraid of having serious conversations about race, class and geography. There must be collective conversations about what progress looks like to everyone, not to just a few, and what are everyone’s needs. How do we make this a better shared space for everyone? Imagine how different our nation would be if Columbus and the colonizers asked the indigenous people that very question.
Colonizers came to the Americas for economic reasons, to chart their own paths, for freedom and with hope for what they could do and how they could live in this “newfound” space. Gentrifiers of the 21st Century are moving to “revitalized” neighborhoods for the very same reasons, and I ponder at times if it is at the same cost: a displaced and almost forgotten people.
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